A West Mecklenburg High senior released this week after five months in federal custody says immigration agents arrested him in January while he was at a school bus stop – a narrative that contradicts federal claims that bus stops and school campuses have been made off limits for deportation arrests.
Yefri Sorto-Hernandez, who was released on $30,000 bond Thursday, says he was waiting at a bus stop a block from his home in west Charlotte when agents confronted him just as the school bus arrived.
“They were roaming the area. I didn’t know who it was and I didn’t want to get close to the car,” said Sorto-Hernandez, 19, speaking through an interpreter. “Another student was with me and they told him to get on the bus. I didn’t know what was happening. They just asked me who I was.”
Sorto-Hernandez detailed the arrest during his first public appearance in Charlotte after being released on bond from Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, Ga.
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He is among six North Carolina immigrant teens arrested in January as part of a federal initiative to pick up Central American immigrants who lost their cases in immigration court and were defying orders of deportation. The arrests of the group, dubbed the NC6 by supporters, prompted a national outcry from immigrant advocates, due to claims some of the six were arrested bus stops or on school grounds.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials have denied those claims. They say Sorto-Hernandez was picked up by agents not at the bus stop, but in a parking lot located on the same street. ICE says it met with representatives of the Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools to assure them arrests are not being made at bus stops or school grounds in Mecklenburg County.
Sorto-Hernandez and Pedro Salmeron are part of a flood of Central American minors who showed up without parents at the U.S. border between 2009 and 2014. Most said they were escaping violence in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, countries that have some of the world’s highest murder rates. They were willing to make the dangerous journey based on word-of-mouth knowledge of a Bush-era law that requires unaccompanied children from Central America to be given immigration court consideration and possible asylum.
Sorto-Hernandez, who was living in the country a year past his deportation order, is the only one of the NC6 to have a bond set. Federal officials have been reluctant to set bonds because several of the teens admitted they were hiding from federal agents.
Advocates for the NC6 say four more students have been arrested in recent weeks, leaving nine students still in custody. Two of those remaining in detention are from Charlotte: Pedro Arturo Salmeron, 18, of El Salvador and Luis Alfredo Chicaj Orozco, 18, of Guatemala.
Family members have pushed to get all the teens released so they can finish school while their immigration cases are being appealed. Sorto-Hernandez was four months shy of graduation when he was picked up, and his time in detention forced him to miss most of his senior year and graduation.
Jose Hernandez-Paris, executive director of the Latin American Coalition, says his group has spoken with CMS officials and arrangements are being made for Sorto-Hernandez to finish his senior year this summer, with the help of teachers volunteering as tutors.
His deportation appeal will come before the court in the next 180 days, advocates say.